A brief history of comparing wokeness to a religion
An idea that the right rediscovers every five minutes - without thanking its author.
I’ve been asked to explain why online leftists, over the past year or so, have taken to cryptically pointing out that “wokeness is like a religion.” The short answer is that we have been mocking the tidal wave of right-wing pundits who, for whatever reason, have decided to steal this insight from its original author without attribution. The long answer is slightly more complicated.
Do some pretty trivial digging and you can find people comparing wokeness to a religion as far back as 2015 — not long after the term moved from AAVE into the mainstream during the Ferguson protests:
“Woke,” meaning something like “aware of important social and political issues,” was in circulation long before it appeared in print, of course. And similarly, even though the earliest recorded comparison of wokeness to a religion appears to have come from “Jamaica Kai” in 2015, it’s clear that the first person who made this point was a Twitter user named Freddy (today using the handle @AstuteCEO) years before.
If you didn’t realize this, you’re not alone. The reason leftists have been making an issue out of it is that even though the origin of this idea is completely uncontroversial, right wing pundits constantly bring it up without ever crediting the author. It can’t be overstated how ubiquitous this has become — and what’s more, standard practice seems to be for everyone who uses Freddy’s idea to bring it up as if they invented it themselves.
This isn’t just a matter of the US right proving once again their amazing capacity for message discipline and sticking to talking points. This isn’t just a matter of nearly every right-wing pundit you can think of telling us, often repeatedly, that wokeness is a religion. This is a matter of every single one of them dropping it like a game-changing truth-bomb — and a good half of them dedicating entire columns and podcast episodes to revealing it. And if you look through the tweets, listen to the podcasts, and read through the Substacks, you’ll find that not a single one of them credits Freddy. Not even one.
Even worse, given all of this time and attention, none of them have added a single insight to Freddy’s original analysis. Just to recap, for anyone who somehow isn’t already familiar: Freddy argues that wokeness is a religion because
1: Both believe various things. Like religious people, the woke share a set of ideas that they have concluded are true. So for example, much like Shintoists believe that spirit-like kami inhabit various objects and forces and concepts found in the natural world, so the woke believe that women in the United States are statistically paid less for doing the same work as men.
2: Both believe their critics are incorrect, and often for reasons that deserve censure. This is not actually a direct analogy with religion per-se, since many religions are doctrinally subjectivist, and even those that are not often prescribe tolerance or disengagement. Nevertheless, because woke people believe typically believe (for example) that carbon emissions are associated with rising global temperatures, they also believe that contrary positions are factually incorrect. To explain this disagreement, woke people typically conclude that their critics are either ignorant about extremely simple points of high school chemistry and widely available data about temperatures and emissions, or that they are acting cynically. If you think about it, this is indeed abstractly comparable to the way that pious Muslims hold that the practice of usury is wrong, and that usurers are greedy.
3: Both think that it is important for their ideas to prevail. Have you noticed that woke people, in addition to thinking that excessive funding has created widespread violence and corruption among police forces in the United States, also think that the police should be defunded? This is textbook wokeness: in addition to recognizing various problems, woke people also see value in attempting to solve them. As one critic puts it,
The woke have generally accepted a pair of ideas that when taken together are an absolute poison:
1."philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it." (Karl Marx)
2. “An activist produces power and policy change, not mental change.” (Ibram Kendi in How to Be an Anti-Racist)
This emphasis on “problem-solving” is one of wokeness’s more esoteric features, but as Freddy noted, it does have certain precedents in various world religions. Some Christian sects, for example, are devoted to something called “The Great Commission” that compels them to “go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you”. The woke do not necessarily practice baptism or observe trinitarianism, but they do emphasize action intended to create various outcomes that are consistent with their ideas, much like Christians.
4: Both think there are cases where it is appropriate to wield power in order to ensure certain outcomes. Here, in my view, is where the comparison to religion really begins to pay off. In politics, we occasionally find groups who think that their vision of “the good” or “the correct” or “the neutral” should prevail even if opponents think some other position should prevail instead. For example, woke people and their critics both insist that their views on gender should be taught in public schools whether the other side approves or not.
Freddy’s great insight was to discover that in this regard, woke people are comparable to various religious groups who participate in politics the same way. Over the past several decades, for example, there is a demonstrable history of Jews in the United States agitating against workplace discrimination and harassment — at the level of legislation, and even to the point of their views on this topic can now be found in HR workshops and policies throughout corporate America. Freddy notes that this is in some ways comparable to the way that woke people have tried not only to create a culture where workplace sexual harassment is frowned upon, but in which it is explicitly illegal and punishable by law.
5: Both are associated with distinctive cultural signifiers and dialects.
If you find yourself talking to someone who has a red dot at the center of their forehead and who uses terms like dharma or moksha, there’s a reasonable chance that this person identifies with one of various eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism. And if you encounter someone who has a rainbow flag sticker on their laptop and uses terms like intersectional or TERF, it’s very likely that you’ve met someone who’s woke. Coincidence?
Sociologists argue that there are some simple explanations for this having to do with the way that ideas tend to produce distinct cultures and that distinct cultures tend to adopt certain shared ideas. But Freddie, persuasively, has argued that this is actually because wokeness is a religion.
6: Both are typically regarded by their critics as irrational, intolerant, tribal, and dogmatic. When it comes to politics, we generally take for granted that everyone is proceeding with sound, disciplined logic and an unwavering commitment to strict rationalism. If a disagreement comes up, people almost always accept that their opponents have a legitimate and defensible point of view, and that even when the political stakes are high everyone should just agree to disagree. And as a rule, it is basically impossible to predict what someone’s position on any particular topic is going to be by looking at what people who they tend to agree with on other topics think, or by associating them with some set political doctrine or platform and working out what it would dictate.
There are, however, two narrow exceptions to all of this. The first, of course, is wokeness. The political opponents of wokeness do not think that they are proceeding logically and rationally; in this unique case, the woke are accused of behaving irrationally. Woke people, we are told, are not engaging with their opponents according to the rules of tolerance and fair engagement that post-Enlightenment liberal pluralism demand: what makes the critique of wokeness unique is that the woke are said to be intolerant. Remarkably, the critics also suspect that woke of actually not thinking for themselves: what makes this movement unusual, we are told, is that various social factors like “conformity” and “reflexive opposition to out-groups” are also informing their politics. Even worse, woke people have ideas that they cannot be convinced are incorrect, and that are fairly predictable based on a general understanding of their basic principles and beliefs.
Again: these are all attacks that we basically never see leveled against political opponents in the contemporary United States, and it would seem that this testifies to something unique about wokeness as a political phenomena. But, Freddy realized, there is in fact another group of people who are often accused of being irrational, intolerant, tribal, and dogmatic: the religious. And once you accept that wokeness is a religion, it’s easy enough to understand why both seem uniquely subject to these kinds of attacks.
Towards further theoretical research
There are a few minor technical problems that still need to be resolved before we can draw any empirical conclusions about wokeness being a religion, and as noted, the right-wing pundits who have been standing on the shoulders of Freddy have added nothing to his original work.
For example, it seems many religions make metaphysical, teleological, transcendental, cosmological, existential, and other such claims that do not have any obvious parallel in wokeness. Religious people have been known to insist that these are in fact the most important elements of their faith. Ask an Evangelical Christian what makes his beliefs different from a standard partisan perspective, and he will probably lay out all kinds of claims about the origin of the universe, the afterlife, the purpose of humanity, and so on; tell him that none of that really matters, and that what really defines his religion is just his polemic style or his certainty that he is right, and he will probably raise some objections.
There’s also an underappreciated logical problem: how can wokeness be both a particular religion and also a description of other religions? Critics of Pope Francis, for example, routinely use the phrase “woke Catholicism” as if the meaning is self-evident; but if wokeness is a religion, this makes as much sense as talking about Sikh Catholicism. Insofar as these terms mean anything, they are mutually exclusive.
If Freddy hasn’t been able to solve these problems we can hardly expect other scholars in the field to work them out. It seems entirely likely that they are going to be stuck simply repeating his groundbreaking insights ad nauseum, as they have so far. At the very least, however, we can expect them to acknowledge their intellectual debt. When you see someone compare wokeness to a religion, please make a point of reminding them that they’re standing on the shoulders of a giant: his name is Freddy.